There were about 40 indigenous leaders along with some settlers from across Canada on the bus, listening to a young indigenous teacher tell us about the first peoples of Toronto when the awkward conversation took place.
As one of his stories unfolded the teacher said, “Of course, we don’t say `Indian’ any more, just like we don’t say `Eskimo’.” There was barely a pause before Annie, who is an older Inuit woman, spoke up. “I call myself `Eskimo’,” she said. “It just means someone who eats whale meat, and I eat whale meat.”
What interested me about this conversation was not whether either of these speakers were right (that isn’t for me, an immigrant kid, to judge), or whether this was the proper translation of the word “Eskimo.” What was more intriguing to me was Annie’s willingness to be defined primarily by what she ate, to be identified by the meat that her place provided her.
Although many people who have immigrated to Canada have foods that connect them to their ethnic roots—like sushi from Japan, or daal from India, or potatoes mashed with kale from Holland—our regular eating habits suggest that we consider the world to be our oyster. Any one of us might eat sushi, daal or boerenkoel (kale and potato mash) all in the same week. We do not consider our eating to be restricted to, or even connected to, the places where we live.
How would a shift to eating in a way that is more rooted in our place affect how we eat? Let us take meat as a test case. On the one hand, people are realizing that industrial factory farmed meat is problematic. Feeding grain to ruminants like cows, sheep and goats, whose bodies are meant to consume grass rather than grain, leads to more methane production. Growing grain for animal consumption means woodland and pasture have been turned into chemical dependent monocultures for corn and soy. Confinement feed-lots and barns often do not allow animals to engage in the behaviours they are adapted for.
In light of this, some consider veganism to be more respectful towards the land and place that we inhabit. Perhaps it would be, if people were truly willing to change their diet when they sacrifice meat, dairy and eggs. However, that is by and large not the case. Most people still desire to eat meat and dairy. So there is a race for large companies to create the perfect plant-based meat, and a booming industry to create milk from almonds, soy, coconuts and rice. None of these things come close to being sustainable in our specific locality. Plant-based meats are highly processed, often with chemicals.
Almond farming is responsible for the death of one-third of honey bees in the United States every year. Soy is grown on fields that contain no biodiversity, often with chemicals and pesticides. Increased coconut production is destroying biodiversity in the tropics, and rice growing is highly water intensive. While some of these products use less energy than factory-farmed beef or chicken or dairy cows, only soy is grown locally. And, none of them are actually produced in ways that are good for the earth. Not one.
So what are our options? What if we took a clue from Annie and from other indigenous peoples around the world. What if we were to eat meat from the animals that this ground can sustain? What if we were to eat meat in ways that were good for the places where we live?
We would need to take our clues for responsible meat-eating from nature in that case. Animals are nature’s way of moving fertility around, ensuring that fertility is deposited around trees (by birds and insects) and in the midst of grasslands (by grazing animals). Animals are essential for spreading fertility throughout our fields and forests.
Since we no longer live in an ecosystem where wild animals and birds are plentiful enough to provide this fertility, we will need to introduce and manage animals that create such fertility in our fields and pastures, and under our fruit and nut trees. If those animals are going to be allowed to reproduce, they will also need to be eaten.
If, however, we eat meat, dairy and eggs, there are two essential steps that must be taken. One is to only eat meat which is produced by local farmers who farm in ways that replenish the earth, respect their fields and forests, and respect the needs of the animals they raise.
The second arises from the first. Eating this way will mean eating considerably less meat, both because there are not as many farmers raising meat responsibly as are needed, and because no ecosystem can flourish if it has to support our unsustainably high demands for meat, dairy and eggs.
For some people, however, eating meat or dairy will never be an option; in that case the challenge will be to truly sacrifice meat and dairy without replacing them with highly processed substitutes that are also detrimental to the earth.
No matter which path we take to reconsidering our eating habits, we need to realize that eating in a way that arises out of our place will require sacrifice. We will need to sacrifice some foods that are just too detrimental to biodiversity and the earth. We will need to sacrifice these foods entirely rather trying to replace them with heavily processed fake substitutes. We will need to realize that we can’t satisfy our every culinary desire and also be faithful to the place where we find ourselves. Only then, like it did for Annie, will our land shape us through the food that we eat.